Can playing Guitar Hero/Rock Band really be anything like playing a proper electric guitar, bass or drum kit? How can it? Well, as I’ll explain, I did find the experiences far closer than I’d assumed.
Let’s start with some quotes to set the scene:
“Guitar Hero is the ultimate wish fulfilment game. Everybody at some point has thought about being on stage with a crowd of people screaming at ‘em and you hit that note and you do the horns and everybody flips out, right?
But it’s hard. That’s a very hard life, it’s hard to learn to play guitar…and then you get Guitar Hero. It’s that experience in a bottle…well, in a box.” - Eric Bratcher, Editor-in-Chief, Gamesrader.com
And, from South Park’s ‘Guitar Queer-O’ episode:
Randy: I can actually play a lot of these songs on a real guitar. You want me to teach you boys how?
Cartman: Uhh, that's gay, Mr. Marsh.
Stan: Yeah, that's stupid, Dad.
Randy: But... But this is real.
Cartman: Real guitars are for old people.
'Paul McCartney' & 'George Harrison', part of TB:RB's amazing animations
I was born in 1965. The Beatles were about to change the world, Winston Churchill was still being mourned and The Rolling Stones were top of the charts: a great time, if you weren’t grizzling, being sick all the time and wore a nappy.
Fast forward eight years to 1973 and, out of the blue, my parents gave me a ¾-size classical guitar for my birthday. It came with a book and companion cassette that was intended to teach four chords (I remember being totally confused by good old B7) and two tunes. I apparently took to it like a duck to water and, even though that cassette tape snapped days later, I was able to ‘work out’ how to apply C, G and D to Go And Tell Aunt Lucy by ear, a natural skill I’m fortunate enough to still possess and one my music teacher Mum still can’t fathom.
In 1980 my dad bought me a 1976 Fender Bronco, a BOSS OD-1 and an eight-watt Laney Klipp and the rest, as they say, is history. A life of guitars, music, gigs bands and, ultimately, guitar journalism stretched ahead of me in a glittering line.
Another house, another city (bear with me!). It’s 25th December 2009 and little Johnny Spudson unwraps an unassumingly rectangular yet satisfyingly bulky present. He doesn’t really care about music too much - he’s more into skateboarding and has already finished the latest Xbox 360 game ‘Tony Hawk: Ride’ – but he doesn't mind McFly as his mates reckon they ‘rock’, has actually heard of AC/DC, and has a grudging admiration for Girls Aloud as his younger sister’s pretty friend Bethany likes Cheryl Cole.
The package is ‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ and his dad, who heartily admires the real John Lennon in particular, has also splashed out on the Ludwig-branded ‘drum set’ and a controller shaped like George Harrison’s Gretsch Duo Jet.
TB:RB's optional controllers. Just brilliant...
They plug it all in once the turkey’s gone down and The Queen has finished her 3pm TV address. Mum and Gran are snoozing, while the girls are upstairs watching Hannah Montana on DVD. Within ten minutes on the ‘guitar’ Johnny turns to his dad, who’s been ably bashing away performing a reasonable impersonation of Ringo, and says: “This a real band, right? They’re quite good, aren’t they?”
And dad, with a smile, reaches for his iPod and plays his son A Hard Day’s Night. That opening chord chimes in and the kid’s face lights up. “Gotcha!” thinks dad, offering a silent prayer of thanks to the heavens.
Now, I imagine that the reaction of that fictional kid to be exactly the same as mine when I played my first legitimate chord on that battered old classical and it did get me thinking about how the feelings induced by playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band could possibly equate to similar experiences stood behind, like, a real guitar within the framework of, saints preserve us, a real band.
I called a mate who occasionally freelances for our parent company’s myriad – and market-leading – games magazines, and, beers in hand, we set up ‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ in his games suite (i.e. a room equipped with a huge telly, fridge, and a ‘no wives allowed’ sign and hefty child-lock on the door).
I had previously had a quick go on my nephew’s copy of Guitar Hero, but didn’t really get much out of it. But now, after five – count ‘em – hours of us taking it in turns ‘playing’ guitar and drums to some of the greatest music ever written, I was absolutely blown away. It’s a given that the music is above contempt, but the animations were so convincing and the drums especially so much fun that we must have played our custom Beatles set about 10 times.
So, how does the act of playing Rock Band equate to getting to grips with a real guitar? Is realistic answer is, of course, not too closely. If you’re an able guitarist in the real world, you can’t expect to be able to take on Expert mode with any level of skill. Even Beginner mode is difficult, take it from me: never has the run-down in Can’t Buy Me Love been more tricky.
Naturally, the opposite is also true. No cocky 11 year-old who’s kicked a virtual Dargonforce’s collective rump on Expert mode will be able to pick up a Strat and play Eruption, however fervently they believe they possess the necessary skills.
I’ve played guitar for over 37 years and, conversely, Rock Band for just a few hours: what do you think I’m better at?
However, there are the similarities. The overriding parallel is the co-ordination of left and right hands. Even though the ‘picking’ action bears almost no resemblance to real plectrum work, the placing of different fingers on specific areas of the controller’s fingerboard isn’t too far away.
Rock Band's right-hand technique up close
Timing is important in both spheres too and even the most ham-fisted of non-musical gamers will find their actual co-ordination improving as they rise through the game. Real players know that timing is as much a question of feel as it is of fixing a steely glare on your drummer, and you can certainly acquire a semblance of good timing playing Rock Band.
One thing it doesn’t do is recreate the feeling of playing in a good band in front of a few paying punters, no matter how loud you have the TV’s volume. The biggest gig I’ve ever played was when our band supported rock legends UFO (our drummer was mates with their bassist Pete Way) for one date in Birmingham in 1992, and we played – with perfect foldback for the first time too, which made the whole thing for me – in front of something like 700 people, who loved us. I actually remember feeling a little drunk when we came off-stage, even though I was stone cold sober. No wonder bands go a bit crazy when an 18- month tour finishes and there’s nothing with which to fill that void...
Can doing this...
...be anything like doing this?
Surely no video game will ever be able to mimic that feeling. Presumably Holographic Rock Band (‘plug your brain in here!’) will address this failing in due course! In the starkest terms, does anyone really believe that playing an F1 game will allow you to win a real Grand Prix? Of course not: assuming you could actually start a Ferrari F50 and get it into gear, you’d be a fireball come the first corner.
I love both playing the game – I’m a casual gamer anyway – and guitar, and I can certainly see why civilians would assume that the experience is akin to that of playing and gigging for real: it’s not, but is almost more fun in its own right than you can think of, especially, in this case, if you know who The Beatles are. You do, don’t you...?
In conclusion, think of this. If just one percent of the 595,000 punters reported by the LA Times (read a related article here) to have bought a version of ‘The Beatles: Rock Band’ in the US subsequently buys a copy of Revolver and starts a love affair with the Fab Four, great would that be, not just for the souls of the people concerned but for music industry in general.
Played the game, now buy the album (but not St Anger, OK?)
Same goes for all Guitar Hero and Rock Band versions; think of all the bands that are portrayed and their catalogue, and the mind begins to boggle. Let’s face it: if you can’t get into Appetite For Destruction after duelling with Slash on Guitar Hero, you’re probably better off sitting in that darkened room blasting similarly gray-faced individuals in marathon on-line Halo 3 sessions. Leaves more rampant totty for us real men, after all...
He'll kick your ass, but what chord is he playing...?
And, of course, once these people start attaining real heroes, they’ll buy a guitar and an amp, will start learning about one and effects, and then they’ll be hooked, just like I still am after all these years.
Who said Rush had no sense of humour?